Owen Paterson makes his bid for the Iron Throne

Owen Paterson makes his bid for the Iron Throne

Today Owen Paterson declared war on the Vichy wing of the Conservative party by telling them exactly like it is: Britain’s ongoing membership of the EU is a disaster; we’d be much better off out;  the only reason we ever joined it in the first place is because the founding fathers of the EU lied about their true intentions, aided and abetted by equally mendacious useful idiots like Prime Ministers Harold Macmillan, Harold Wilson and Edward Heath. If we’d known what we were getting ourselves into we would never have given up our sovereignty; and we’d all be a lot freer and richer as a result.

This thesis ought not to be weird or controversial. It’s all clearly explained in Christopher Booker’s and Richard North’s magisterial 2005 history of the European Union – The Great Deception.

But until very recently it’s not something any senior Tory would ever have dared admit in public because it would have been deemed the kind of toxic, divisive, banging-on-about-Europe language which – or so received wisdom told us – puts people off voting Conservative.

So why is Owen Paterson – sacked as Environment Minister in Cameron’s last, ill-advised Cabinet reshuffle – pouring petrol on the flames by doing it now, at one of his party’s greatest moments of recent crisis, when it has just been trounced in two successive by-elections by Nigel Farage’s UKIP insurgency?

Simple. Because like a lot of natural Conservatives, Paterson has had quite enough of David Cameron’s spineless, mushy centrism. He has sensed – as many of his fellow Conservative MPs have – that despite signs of economic recovery and despite the quite gobsmacking uselessness of Ed Miliband’s Labour it is by no means guaranteed that the Conservatives will win a majority in next year’s May general election. So, quite sensibly, he is stealing a march on his potential rivals by positioning himself as the leader of the Eurosceptic rebellion and, quite possibly, as a plausible red-meat successor to David Cameron as leader of the Conservatives.

Here’s how Isabel Hardman puts it in the Spectator:

There are a number of Conservative big beasts who already think that David Cameron will end up campaigning for Britain to stay in the EU no matter how good or bad the renegotiation settlement they get is. And they see this creating a vacancy in their party that could make the successful candidate very powerful indeed.

I think she’s right on both counts, especially the first. Sure Cameron has promised the electorate a referendum in 2017, presuming that his party is in government after the next election. But as Paterson – channeling our greatest living expert on the subject, Richard North – made clear in his speech this is an empty promise because it doesn’t include any kind of meaningful exit strategy.

It will only work, Paterson argues, if Cameron invokes Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

Once the decision to invoke Article 50 has been made, agreement should be concluded as rapidly as possible. But speedy negotiations impose certain constraints. We should remember that the Swiss bilateral agreements with the EU took 16 years to negotiate. The much-vaunted EU – South Korea FTA took almost 18 years to come to fruition – in the form of a 1,336 – page trading agreement. We need, therefore, to pick a proven, off – the – shelf plan.

However, our participation in the Single Market is fundamental to protecting the UK’s economic position. This brings us to the only realistic option, which is to stay within the EEA agreement. The EEA is tailor made for this purpose and can be adopted by joining EFTA first. This becomes the “Norway option”. We have already seen that Norway has more influence in international decision – making than we do as an EU Member State. Using the EEA ensures full access to the Single Market and provides immediate cover for leaving the political arrangements of the EU. To ensure continuity and avoid any disruption to the Single Market, would also repatriate the entire Acquis and make it domestic law, giving us time to conduct a full review in good order.

Is any of this likely to happen? Not while Cameron is in charge, no. First, he doesn’t really do detail. Second, he tends instinctively towards the status quo. Third, he’s hardly going to be want to be seen taking advice from a sacked cabinet minister who quite obviously despises him.

Meanwhile UKIP are staying out of this particular spat – as well they might, not having an EU exit strategy nearly as thought-through as Paterson’s. I’m sure they’d love it if he jumped ship and joined them, but I don’t think Paterson is that kind of man. In any case, it’s not in any of our interests to have all the most sound right-wingers deserting the Conservative party. Someone’s got to spearhead the Thatcherite revival and maybe Owen Paterson is the man.